There’s been a surge of fiction and nonfiction by writers of my generation dealing with the matter of becoming the caretaker of aging parents. I myself got a piece out of this life transition — for the New York Times, yippee. But in my case, that phase only lasted a few months, and it was ten years ago. I’ve now aged out and gone on to the next milestone — being taken care of by my children and other younguns.
No, I am not yet completely infirm, doddering and non compos mentis (though as you may recall I was recently taken advantage of by scammers). But I guess I have become a little fragile. On St. Patrick’s Day, I was in a sequinned gold dress on the 13th floor of the Belvedere Hotel, dancing at the wedding of dear friends for whom I had just offered a heartfelt toast. I must have been getting a little too jiggy with it because my right kneecap — which has been letting me down this way since 1971 during my entrance onstage as Cassius during the tenth-grade rock opera production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — took a leave of absence from its leg-holding-together duties. In other words, my patella subluxated. I lost my balance and hit the floor, catching myself with my left hand.
Not wanting to make a scene, I slipped out and called a Lyft. My knee was swelling up like a grapefruit, then a cantaloupe, and something really was wrong with my hand, and while I did get home and up the stairs, I collapsed inside the front door. With my right leg and left arm now out of commission and pain 9 on a scale of 10, even though I had to pee, I could go no farther. It seemed too late to call anyone on the phone, so I was reduced to crying out for help at intervals, hoping my neighbor on the other side of the duplex might hear. She didn’t. So there I was, for hours, weeping in a puddle of pee.
Though my daughter Jane was on a school trip to France, her friend Maeve had contacted me earlier about crashing at our house that night after a St. Paddy’s party in the neighborhood. I had forgotten all about this arrangement, so it seemed like a miracle when at 2 am, the front door opened and Maeve appeared in a shamrock-patterned hat with an electric-green fur brim. This fine young woman got me off the floor, out of my finery, dried off and into pjs on the couch before she went up to bed. Is it any surprise her name is Gaelic for fairy queen?
The next day friends and neighbors appeared and schlepped me to urgent care, where I learned that my wrist was badly broken. I was told to see an orthopedic surgeon as soon as possible, which I did. He informed me that my wrist was “crushed” — he used that word way too many times, I felt — indicating that I have osteoporosis. Oh, great. Surgery to fix me up with titanium plates and screws was scheduled for the coming Friday. He would have liked to do it sooner, but the whole city was scheduled to be shut down by snow on Wednesday and Thursday.
The morning after the accident, I texted both my sons — Hayes, 29, in Bethesda; Vince, 27, in Brooklyn — to let them know what had happened their poor Mozzie. I was surprised and moved when both of them immediately made plans to come to Baltimore. Hayes and his wife Maria arrived for overnight visits both before and after the surgery. Vince came down as soon as the trains started running after the snowstorm. He drove me to the operation and cared for me in the aftermath. The night after the surgery, with both boys and their ladies here, eating Peruvian chicken and watching Logan Lucky, I was almost happy about the whole thing.
My sons proved to have very different caretaking styles, which I suppose is to be expected since they have very different personalities. Hayes, the preppy financier, was Big Nurse, enforcing a strict icing schedule, making sure I elevated my knee, drank plenty of water, and didn’t overdose on oxycodone. I had taken care of him for ten days after his knee surgery a couple of years ago — here’s that story — and based on his post-operative experience, he pressured me to stop frantically writing book reviews via dictation on my laptop and making phone calls. Mom! Stop yelling at your computer and get some rest, for God’s sake, he commanded.
Vince, the grad student/musician, was a bit more of an enabler, supporting my instinct that a key part of any course of recovery would be drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. Not to say he didn’t fill the ice pack and fluff my pillows, too, and he also handled many of the errands and chores that were piling up. He went to the pet food store, took my poor dress to the cleaners, addressed the litter box situation, put air in my tires. His finest hour came at 4:30 in the morning, the night after the surgery.
During the operation, in addition to general anesthesia, I’d been given a nerve block, which eliminated all feeling except for a disembodied pins-and-needles sensation in the general area of my hand. This was still in effect when they sent me home that afternoon, and it was weird. At one point my arm was over my head, and when I looked down and didn’t see it, I thought it was gone. Where’s my arm? I screamed.
According to the medical professionals, I was to take a pain pill before I went to bed that night, as the nerve block would be wearing off while I was asleep. Well, I never did feel sleepy, and the block began to wear off around 1:30 a.m. Vince had been sitting up with me, but after a while, I asked him to help me up to bed. (I’d been sleeping, or should I say “sleeping,” on the couch all week with a horrible street light shining in my eyes.) Upstairs, I tried to get comfortable. As the pain in my wrist dialed up, this proved to be impossible. Soon it was at a level that I can compare only to childbirth. Images of hot pokers and metal pincers and jumping out the window reeled through my head. I was popping oxycodone, tramadol, and ibuprofen with absolutely no result.
Meanwhile, Vince was outside on the porch of our next-door neighbor. These two are good buddies, and whenever Vince is home, they stay up literally all night, drinking and smoking and listening to drum and bass mixes. I could hear them out there, going strong. Finally, I texted: Please come.
It is incredibly hard to be with someone who is in excruciating pain. Vince managed it with poise and sympathy. He came, he sat on the bed, and he said comforting things that I can’t remember now. After a while, he insisted that I drink two big shots of whiskey. It’ll knock you out, he said. That’s what you need.
I got about two hours of sleep (one for each shot?) before the pain woke me up again. It was a rough day but gradually things improved. The boys went home, Jane returned from France, my sister came down from New York later in the week and played clean-up on the whole situation.
And now I am typing with two hands, having taken my first Pilates class in two weeks. Undoubtedly, all kinds of crap lies ahead of me. Physical therapy, osteoporosis treatment, two knee surgeries, further mental decay, probable drug addiction… but with Big Nurse and the Enabler on call, I think I’ll be okay. What a lovely surprise.